NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati has always been intrigued by notions of identity. As a person of mixed ethnicity – her father is Newar and her mother Gurung – she has constantly questioned her identities based on ethnic heritage, gender and class. And so, in 2010, she started shooting a portrait series, trying to capture a moment in Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a federalist democracy.
“It’s natural for a new system to have growing pains during times of transition, when people are trying to figure out – how do we fit in,” said Kakshapati, who was born and brought up in Kathmandu, and studied in the US before returning to Nepal in 2006. “There was a focus on systems of inclusion because for so long people were excluded from decision making – whether it was the government or civil society.”
For the series, Kakshapati travelled across Nepal, meeting people randomly and through friends, talking to them about their identity. For women, gender was their primary identity. In the far west, she spoke to the indigenous Tharu community, who are landless and dependant on Brahmin hill folk who settled in the region. That series shaped one part of Kakshapati’s photo exhibition called Being Nepali, presented in Toronto by Gallery 44 and South Asian Visual Arts Collective.
Dressed in a black outfit, her hair twisted into a bun, Kakshapati takes a break from the installation process. A pile of Nepali passport photos lies on a table. She has been painstakingly applying sticky tape to their backs, and then pasting them on a wall in an undulating wave. This part of the installation seems to represent a fluid nature of identity and how we configure ourselves depending on the context we find ourselves in, in the moment.
“I was talking to [SAVAC’s outgoing artistic director] Sharlene Bamboat the other day. And she asked me if I identified as desi or not,” said Kakshapati. “And I had to think about it. I am familiar with that term as a concept. And I suppose geographically, yes. But in Nepal it means something else. This idea of identifying with a certain group can be so flexible, but at the moment [in Nepal] we are boxing it more.”
The question of Nepali identity is central to the current crisis in Nepal, where a border blockade in the southern region has resulted in an acute shortage of essential goods, fuel and medicine. The blockade is being led by the Madhesi community, which is unhappy with the new constitution that was passed in September 2015. The Madhesis demand proportional representation in the government and changes to state demarcations. Many in Nepal also blame India for playing politics by worsening the embargo, or at the very least implicitly supporting the blockade, although New Delhi denies any involvement.
“Because of the blockade, there’s more emphasis on a Nepali national identity,” said Kakshapati. “It’s also seen as a response to India and its politically overbearing ways. But there are so many ethnic groups that negotiate these micro- and macro-identity politics.”
This isn’t the first time that the Madhesi community has aired their grievance, she adds. But it is the first time that people in Kathmandu have been affected, which has brought the issue of identity to the forefront. Despite its small size, Nepal is a country with immense diversity, with more than 102 ethnic groups.
“Again and again, I found myself asking this question – what does it mean to be Nepali,” she said.
Through her various projects, Kakshapati had been grappling with different aspects of this question. In 2007, she set up a photo collective called photo.circle to help create networking opportunities for Nepali photographers. In 2011, she started the Nepal Picture Library , a digital photo archive that now has more than 50,000 images collected from Nepali individuals and families, as well as an oral history segment. Then there was her 2010 series of portraits, which tried to capture Nepali people from across the country stripped from any sorts of cultural identifiers. At first, she thought her main challenge would be photographing women with bare shoulders.
“But women are so used to bathing in public, it wasn’t an issue at all,” said Kakshapati. “In fact, I had a few awkward moments with men. One man, he just wouldn’t take his janai [sacred thread] off. He said, you can ask me to take my dhoti off, but not this. So you can see his janai at the edge of the photo.”
However, it wasn’t until she came to Toronto for her residency that she was able to see the big picture, in a manner of speaking. The distance from Nepal, where she got swamped with the day-to-day business of going about life and work, allowed her to take a more expansive view.
“I had come to Toronto with all the material – the passport photos, the prints of the portrait series, which I got printed in a small shop underneath Andheri station in Mumbai; printing things in Nepal is too expensive – and photos from the archival project,” said Kakshapati. “Looking at them again, I realised that these photos are really a way of capturing the present. But when you look at it from an archival perspective, you understand how the past shapes the present, it contextualises the present.
“This exhibition has also challenged me to think about my role as a photographer. That I don’t have to make images. That I can use found images. Besides, I was getting tired of my own images. So for one part of the exhibition, I decided to forget about the frame, but made cut-outs.”
As for the blockade, Kakshapati isn’t sure what is going to happen.
“There are so many conspiracy theories – the government is talking to India, it’s not talking to India. The government is talking to the Madhesis, it’s not talking to the Madhesis. I’m not sure what’s next.”